The Most Subversive Performances of 2009

The Most Subversive Performances of 2009 (photo)

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In his 1966 essay entitled “The Subverters,” Manny Farber hoped “for a new award at the year’s end: Most Subversive Actor.” His complete film criticism, “Farber On Film,” was published this year, and in his honor I’m submitting a list of five nominees for this wished-for fake trophy. But his definition of “subversive” is a tricky one — at the beginning of the essay, he describes the “subversive nature of the medium: the flash-bomb vitality that one scene, actor, or technician injects across the grain of a film.”

For Farber, movies are complex mechanisms built upon the collision of artistic temperaments, not monoliths that can be encapsulated in a single theme, performance or mood. So he focuses on the small, telling details that exist on the outskirts of the plot, thrilling to actors who “can ply around the edges, trying to budge a huge, flabby movie script”. It’s the marvel of individual expression breaking through a multiplicity of voices — directors, set designers, writers — that he deems subversive, and I hope this list captures the spirit of this thought. [Spoilers ahead for “Zombieland.”]

12182009_Gamer2.jpgMichael C. Hall in “Gamer”

As Ken Castle, a guffawing young Southern tech-tycoon, Michael C. Hall provides the charismatically evil center for Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s deliriously messy “Gamer.” A Mark Cuban-type billionaire, Castle is the inventor of “Society” and “Slayers,” two live-action video games where players control real human beings. “Society” is his porno version of “The Sims,” while “Slayers” is his first-person shooter and PPV smash hit. Hall oozes his way on-screen with an ingratiating tenor that drawls out corporate double-talk with an ease and smirk that makes everything he says sound like a dirty joke. The key to his performance, though, is the whiplash-inducing quality of his movements. He continually starts in a relaxed position, echoing the molasses-slow speed of his voice, until he lands on a point of emphasis, when he curls up his lip or wields his hands like a pen knife, slashing the air like he’s slicing open a patient. These pinprick movements pay off in an astonishing fashion in the final sequence, when he pantomimes the angular, jerky moves of a puppet to the tune of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” mocking the power he has over his human game pieces.

12182009_TheGoods.jpgKathryn Hahn in “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard”

With quiet indignity, Kathryn Hahn is becoming the most fearless comedic actress in Hollywood. After stealing “Step Brothers” out from under Will Ferrell with her raucously violent sexuality, she sketched another dark portrait of the female id in “The Goods, ” a hit-or-miss gag reel that killed every time Hahn appeared on-screen. She plays Babs Merrick, part of a team of traveling used car salespeople who rent out their services to struggling franchises. Hahn aims for a kind of blowsy cynicism with the heavily made-up Merrick, persistently pouting her lips and implanting her hands on her hips to emphasize this loner’s fading sensuality. Hahn has an unerring sense of how to push her self-destructive characters over the edge. She wields a cutting deadpan that escalates quickly into sheer panic – as in her fruitless pursuit of a manly-looking ten-year old (Rob Riggle), which has her flap her lids and bite her lips before exploding into ecstatic vulgarities that would make Lenny Bruce blush.

12182009_GentlemenBroncos.jpgJemaine Clement in “Gentlemen Broncos”

Jemaine Clement and director Jared Hess have created an entrancingly deluded character in Ronald Chevalier, a blithering idiot highlight in this otherwise blandly amiable misfire. A sci-fi writer who dabbles in erotic art and plagiarism, he’s equal parts bombast and insecurity, papering over his manifest failures with feathered helmet hair and an absolute lack of self-awareness (he wears a Bluetooth headset but always talks on a cell). Desperate for inspiration for his next novel, he swipes a story from a teen’s literary contest submission and remains oblivious to the consequences. He’s a human non-sequitur, speaking with an uncannily froggy voice that starts in the back of his throat and then seems to come out through his nose, and parades around in outfits that combine Native American leisure wear with the finest pleather vests. His movements are strangely robotic, looking like an unathletic Frankenstein’s monster as he stumbles back from the righteous blows of the original author.

12182009_Armored.jpgLaurence Fishburne in “Armored”

Nimrod Antal’s taut thriller is motored by the no-frills performances of his unshaven cast, highlighted by the grunting decadence of Laurence Fishburne’s Baines, who leads a group of armored truck drivers to fake a heist and hide the money for themselves. When the plan falls apart, loyalties are divided and expire entirely as they slowly devour each other to the time-keeping clank of steel on steel, attempting to wrench open a reinforced vehicle door. Fishburne seems to revel in his aging body, puffing out his gut and emitting a chorus of groans, mutters and sighs as his flesh battles against him. Antal provides him with a slender backstory — he’s a married drunk — and Fishburne nails the cliché down so hard that it ends up ringing with truth. You can almost smell the alcohol in his sweat as he laughs too hard at bad jokes, simply to pass the time, and one waits for his self-loathing to spread outward into violence.

12182009_Zombieland.jpgBill Murray in “Zombieland” (Spoilers!)

Bill Murray is an oasis of subtlety and absurdity in the otherwise thuddingly conventional “Zombieland.” Essentially a romantic comedy spiced up with the undead, the film is a parade of clichés, product placement and eager overacting. But when the group of human survivors crash at Murray’s place, the rote narrative is suspended for a sequence of pure playfulness anchored by his classic deadpan. Wobbling in with a fake wig and fright makeup to fit in with the brain-eaters, he massages the cutesy pop-culture dialogue into serviceable punchlines. The whole Eddie Van Halen run is saved by his bluntly matter-of-fact delivery of “he’s a zombie,” paired with a nonchalant shoulder shrug to emphasize the banality of the situation. It’s a minor joke, but he makes it work through canny underplaying. His best bit, though, is his slow-burn exhale during his untimely demise, knowing exactly the number of beats it will take for the gag to register. But once he dies, the movie dies with it.

[Additional photos: “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard,” Paramount Vantage, 2009; “Gentlemen Broncos,” Fox Searchlight, 2009; “Armored,” Screen Gems, 2009; “Zombieland,” Columbia Pictures, 2009]


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.